'Three's Company': Back-To-Back-To-Back Rushing Titles Equals Gold Jacket

'Three's Company': Back-To-Back-To-Back Rushing Titles Equals Gold Jacket

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By Andy Phillips
Special to the Pro Football Hall of Fame

It is no secret that Derrick Henry, running back for the Tennessee Titans, has been on a tear the past few seasons. In 2020, he led the NFL in rushing for a second consecutive season, with 2,027 yards.

Making that figure even more impressive is realizing Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings finished second in the league – 470 yards behind Henry – with 1,557 rushing yards. Granted, Henry played two more regular-season games than Cook, but even if you took Cook’s average of 111.2 yards for the games he missed, his full-season total would have come up nearly 250 yards short of the rushing champion.

Henry’s level of dominance is setting him apart in today’s NFL, and to find a comparison over a three-year period requires examining a different sport.

From 2000-02, Shaquille O’Neal led the Los Angeles Lakers to three consecutive NBA championships. During those years, he put on arguably the most dominant three-year stretch in NBA Finals history with these per-game averages:

2000: 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks

2001: 33.0 points, 15.6 rebounds, 3.4 blocks

2002: 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.8 blocks

So what does basketball have to do with Derrick Henry? It’s not the points, rebounds or blocks, but rather the way “Shaq” accumulated them. The entire league knew exactly what he and the Lakers wanted to do. Opponents designed their entire game plan around stopping O’Neal from scoring close to the hoop, and yet they still couldn’t stop him -- identical to what Henry is doing to NFL defenses.

Each week, NFL defensive coordinators are designing their game plan to slow down “King Henry,” yet he and the Titans continue to execute their vaunted rushing attack.

Similarly, both O’Neal and Henry dominate their games the same way: with brute force, using their big, physical bodies and surprising athleticism.

What made O’Neal’s stretch arguably the most dominant was he did it three consecutive years, a feat Henry is about to embark on during the 2021 NFL season.

How rare is it to lead the NFL in rushing three consecutive seasons?

Since 1932, only four players in NFL history have led the league in rushing three years in a row: STEVE VAN BUREN (1947-49), JIM BROWN twice (1957-1961 and 1963-65), EARL CAMPBELL (1978-1980) and EMMITT SMITH (1991-93).

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only six other players have led the league two seasons in a row: O.J. SIMPSON twice (1972-73 and 1975-76), ERIC DICKERSON (1983-84), BARRY SANDERS (1996-97), EDGERRIN JAMES (1999-2000), LaDAINIAN TOMLINSON (2006-07) and Henry.

Many factors contribute to making this feat so difficult. Foremost is the player’s health and the wear and tear on his body. Carries and hits take a toll on even the greatest athletes. Other factors outside the runner’s control include health of the team, especially along the offensive line; coaching changes; defensive game plans; and even Mother Nature making conditions difficult.

One universal jumps out: All four of the gentlemen who have achieved the three-peat rushing milestone are Pro Football Hall of Famers. Additionally, all five players besides Henry to do it twice also have been enshrined.

Good players can post a great season, but history shows it takes an all-time type of player to achieve this level of dominance.

It’s an underrated storyline as the 2021 NFL season open. Across the League, 31 defensive coordinators, 31 defensive units and 31 other starting running backs will do everything in their power to make sure Derrick Henry doesn’t become the fifth player to win three consecutive rushing titles.

Much like Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s, however, sometimes such a dominant force comes around that it simply doesn’t matter how opponents try to stop him. According to history, if Henry can achieve No. 3 this year, a representative from Haggar can start taking his measurements for a Gold Jacket because the “Three’s Company” room is reserved for Hall of Famers only.

One last nugget for NFL defensive coordinators: If you want to hear Derrick Henry laugh, tell him your plans.

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